‘Strung out’ 2016
I was walking along the Thames pathway in Oxford the other day when a man came towards me walking the other way. As he passed he hacked up and spat and said under his breath ‘he looks like a right cunt’. I looked around but there was no one else nearby, he must have been talking about me. I couldn’t help thinking about it for the rest of my walk, and one thought in particular wouldn’t go away: maybe the man was right, I am a cunt. Gender politics of that particular piece of vernacular notwithstanding, in common parlance you do need to be a cunt in order to make art or to write. And yes, it takes one to know one.
Artists and writers are the guardians of liberty and are definitely not cunts
The problem with us artists and writers is we don’t think we’re bad people, on the contrary, we more often than not think we’re the guardians of liberty and that being creative is somehow exalted. Success is when you get to stand on the dais and accept the laurel wreath from the elders. But then convictions, personal ones such as who we think we are or whether we’re a good person or not, often have questionable foundations and are likely to crumble sometime or other.
I say ‘we’ but in case there’s any doubt, I speak from personal experience. And if that seems confessional, it’s because it is. In my dissertation as a mature student at art school I looked for exoneration for my beliefs and ideals. Being so inept as to seek this amongst some of the most dissolute and licentious artists and writers of the modern era is my admission. Trying to justify the chip on one’s shoulder is, after all, neither fun nor particularly cool.
My writing was called Through Reflective Caverns and was ostensibly an exploration of the right-ness of unmediated expression in painting and drawing. Something like this: Crafted by hand is honest and of the people. Mediated, machined and corporation-refined only benefits THE MAN. Is it possible to explore being right? I thought so.
The story that I didn’t know I was exploring, but which is clear as day in hindsight, is the between-the-lines evidence of a very different narrative. So what I’m writing now looks both forwards and backwards at the same time much like the two-faced Roman god Janus. I like the analogy of Janus as he was the god of transitions and presided over the beginning of war when his temple doors were open and the end of war when they were closed.
N.B. With the exception of quotations, direct ideas of the forward-looking Janus will henceforth be in italics.
Closure is this story in hindsight and relates to paradoxical trails and truths that didn’t follow my purpose, which was essentially one of conflict. An example of hindsight is a latter awareness of the inherent iniquity of some of the key protagonists of my original writing, their evil-ness, which is a word you don’t hear everyday. My proposition for example, was that 19th century poet of the dispossessed Charles Baudelaire was virtuous (and by implication something like a role model) solely by dint of his critique of modernity‘s anonymity and estrangement. I might as well have asked Picasso, whoremonger and bullfight enthusiast to be a pious shepherd of the people.
Hindsight is all about honest admission and peace, admitting things such as the fact that outside of the studio us artists are workshy. We don’t want to contribute physically to society because we’ve got stuff to finish. We’re worse than the corporate daddies and hubbies who ultimately bankroll the gallerists. Furthermore we think infidelity and general licentiousness is fine (as it seems artists at least from Caravaggio onwards have agreed upon). Also we’d rather do art than spend time with the family, if we even have a family that is. More likely than not we don’t believe in God, nor marriage. Kids – no way, “I said I haven’t got the time time, too busy sucking on my ding-dong” sang Lou Reed. The usual drive of the artist is to explore his or her self, mine it for material or even worse mine other people for material. So we are self-obsessed and callous, and need to be. Or we are vainglorious and crave recognition. More likely than not, we are self-obsessed and vainglorious. Yet we have the gall to think that we are any better than the politicians who we claim to despise. I’m not the only one who proclaims their innocence whilst being indignant about state grievances.
Georges Bataille in Literature and Evil, his 1957 collection of essays on Blake, Jean Genet, Kafka, De Sade and others, writes that “Literature is not innocent, it is guilty and should admit itself so.” It’s an “excess” and is evil because it is against purpose and has no labour value. Bataille’s point is that it is only with the unpicking and freeing from morality or goodness that the work of literature or art is fully realised in terms of potential, and only then is evil transcended.
Feeling indignant and at the same time innocent
As artist’s we are essentially good and we reject Christianity’s idea of the original sin. This is an idea that we’ve inherited from liberal ideology beginning more or less with Jean Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762), which has at its core a hyperrational disavowal towards social hierarchy or bondage including feudal slavery, man over woman, or indeed man over nature. ‘Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains’ is Rousseau’s rebel rousing opening sentence. It’s hyperrational because for most people the paradoxes and swings and roundabouts of some kind of social ordering are accepted as part of the human condition. To not accept hierarchy full-stop, is to be so rational as to be hyperrational. Those who Rousseau inspired, the Romantic writers, artists and poets who pitted themselves against the Enlightenment, as well as countless other social movements including the hippies and anarcho-punks, fundamentally believed in their own right-ness and innocence.
Camille Paglia in Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1992) takes the point of view of the Marquis de Sade who she calls ‘the most unread major writer in western literature’. For Paglia de Sade’s work is a satiric critique of Rousseau’s Romantic (and to this day continually pervasive) ideal of getting back to nature. Paglia writes that Rousseau’s ideal would ‘…give free rein to violence and lust.’ ‘Feminists, seeking to drive power relationships out of sex, have set themselves against nature. Sex is power. Identity is power. In western culture, there are no non-exploitative relationships. Everyone has killed in order to live.’ Paglia continues:
‘Modern liberalism […] expects government to provide materially for all, a feat manageable only by an expansion of authority and a swollen bureaucracy. In other words, liberalism defines government as tyrant father but demands it behaves as nurturant mother’
Fittingly, my original forward facing story – my dissertation – begins with a piece of agit-prop provoked by state intervention into parenthood and which had caught my eye. In 2013, John Constable’s 1821 painting of rural English countryside The Haywain, which hangs in London’s National Gallery, was defaced by protester Paul Manning as part of a Fathers4Justice campaign.
Manning, a father who had lost a child custody court appeal two weeks prior, had glued a four-inch photograph of his son to the painting, the word “help” written on the photograph. My premise was that the choice of artwork for the attack was no accident; The Haywain being a sign for all that is over-finished, closed and complete about painting. Conversely, the fact that there is no room (as a viewer) for dialogue in the work becomes highlighted when we see it defaced. For something similarly highlighted by being incongruous, remember Gillian Wearing’s photographs of smiling yuppies holding up placards reading ‘I’M DESPERATE’ and black cops holding cards saying ‘HELP’.
John Constable’s 1821 sketch for The Haywain is punk-rock
Sketch for The Haywain is pure like a punk-rock first album, whereas The Haywain is like a sell-out second album – artistically compromised, pandering to taste. That’s what I wrote and it probably still holds true, that Manning would not have direct-action’d the photograph to Constable’s preparatory oil study of the same scene. Visually it would have got lost among the rest of the emotional rawness. There wouldn’t have been enough contrast and it doesn’t represent the chocolate-box twee-ness that we choose to loathe or love or pin our personal and political concerns to. In fact the sketch looks altogether of our own twenty-first century arty sensibility in terms of our hip disdain for the virtual or mass-produced.
Despite criticism of media friendly over-finished-ness toward the so called YBAs in the late 80s and early 90s, Michael Craig-Martin, pivotal tutor at Goldsmiths during that period, makes no bones of his admiration for the hand-drawn line. In the catalogue forward to the exhibition he curated Drawing the Line, he writes of erstwhile sketches:
‘The most striking thing about the drawings of the past is how ‘modern’ they look. I believe that this is because the qualities we have come to value most highly in art […] have always been present […], but usually in the past have characterised only modest and ‘secondary work’; that is, drawings. These characteristics include spontaneity, creative speculation, experimentation, directness, simplicity, abbreviation, expressiveness, immediacy, personal vision, technical diversity, modesty of means, rawness, fragmentation, discontinuity, unfinishedness, and open-endedness. These have always been the characteristics of drawing’.
Neatly consolidating Craig-Martin is Werner Herzog’s film Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), which documents the Aurignacian cave paintings in Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, Southern France. Herzog narrates that a section of the cave was painted in 30,000 BCE. Then, astoundingly, we learn that in 27,000 BCE another artist added to the painting whilst respecting the original painter’s handwork. Herzog points out that ‘we are locked in history, those cave dwellers weren’t’. So it seemed that being ‘locked in history’ related to an over-corporealness and tired density in relation to artworks such as the finished Haywain, whereas drawing – be it modern or ancient – remains sufficiently unlocked to be accessible by artists of a different millennia.
I found out that another famous French cave, the Neolithic Lascaux complex was, within 15 years of discovery in 1940, so adversely affected by the carbon dioxide exhaled by scientists and the curious that white mould appeared over the walls and, fearing complete annihilation, the cave’s entry was permanently sealed. For both Lascaux and Chauvet, life-size replica caves were made, the Chauvet facsimile in a nearby 3,500sqm concrete-clad building.
But then if you’re an earnest spirit like me you might feel a sense of outrage at the prospect of fibreglass or plastic fake caves. Caves after all are the refuge of hermits and perennial outsiders as well as being the homestead of many peoples throughout history. Homesteads like the caves of the mysterious Anasazi in Arizona USA, the Derinkuyu caves in Turkey and the troglodyte dwellings of Matera in Italy, which were in use until its 20,000 inhabitants were forcibly removed in the 1950s.
We are not to be trusted and caves are not safe.
We have been fundamentally blocked from our own heritage, from adding to those cave drawings or even looking directly at them. We are not to be trusted and caves are not safe. Ancient and unspoilt places are protected and controlled for our own ‘good’, and are frequented by the Right. The indignant forward facing Janus is sure of all of this and finds irrefutable proof wherever he goes.
Like when I drove through the Oxfordshire countryside and passed a picturesque village called Swinbrook. It was magical and unspoilt, willows sweeping along the banks of a little river, a row of houses in the local white stone with thatched roofs, and a little pub called The Swan with a few people sitting outside under sun umbrellas. Back home I had a look on the internet. The first picture that came up was David Cameron ushering François Hollande inside The Swan. I’ll never go back.
Conversely the Left take up residence where they know they won’t be disturbed, where no one gives a shit. It’s no coincidence that the best of Italian Leftist cinema – Pier Paulo Pasolini’s New Wave masterpiece Mama Roma (1962) – wasn’t filmed in the historic and closely controlled centre of Rome but on it’s grassy outskirts amongst newly built social housing blocks and a mixture of ruins from down the ages; the remains of Roman brickwork and WW2 rubble.
For literary and cultural critic Walter Benjamin however, the powers-that-be from which to position oneself against was the encroaching Third Reich. And as both intellectual and Jew in 1930s Germany he was decidedly persona non grata (as was sadly born out). Due to both the authenticity of his victimisation and the strength of his critique of all that is mediated for gain or control, the writer tallied highly as a supporting partisan in my dissertation.
Walter Benjamin, supporting partisan
In The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, his 1936 text on the devaluation and loss of an original artwork’s ‘aura’, Benjamin writes of our cult-like relationship towards original artwork paralleling the notion of animistic people’s regard for spirits that reside in inanimate objects. Benjamin writes that; ‘Mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual’. His point is that we’re distracted from noticing the loss of the unmediated object and therefore its void by the flickering of images in film. Benjamin’s ideas are no less diminished this century. Walking around whilst browsing on our phones forgetting we even have a body.
For all Herzog’s weighty acclaim, under Benjamin’s gaze the Cave of Forgotten Dreams is reduced to an indulgence: something like the German director starring in his own porno film. There’s no theatre-like panorama such as in Mama Roma whereby we can choose where to look or equally accept peripheral imagery. Instead we are obliged to follow the directed gaze of the cameraman’s lens, and told what to think by Herzog’s slightly soporific inflection. We learn that ancient man recreated a sense of movement on the cave wall by drawing the legs of the auroch overlapping. The irony is that that sounds very much like a proto ‘flickering image’, as if the auroch’s aura is getting ready to skedaddle several tens of millennia before the advent of cinema.
The auroch’s aura is getting ready to skedaddle
My dissertation was sure of itself. Binary. Looking at Herzog’s cave in such light was too interesting to exclude however even though it presented an inconvenience and was an anomaly. My ideas weren’t about to crumble yet though, especially as a friend introduced me to Sean Joseph Patrick Carney’s writing which, in his its on Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation Carney, cranks up the moral indignation to 11 for the same French caves; ‘So what did modern society come up with? They build a fucking replica 500 meters […] away. […] If ethnology wants to live, whatever it’s studying has to die. But the thing that it’s studying gets a kind of revenge in this scenario. “Science wants to study us? Fuck science. We’ll just die”‘.
Binary: about ready to give up the ghost
This was appealing and powerful stuff that Carney was spitting. We hate THEM so much, the white overall’d and thoroughly unromantic scientists, who in any case are pretty much an instrument of the state and probably motivated by gain, that we’d rather DIE than surrender our secrets and dignity.
This form of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face is so extreme as to appear satirical. But to think that Carney (and in turn how much I related to what he said) is complete nonsense would take us back to the realm of binary. Binary – binary class systems, binary politics and binary gender and race – is surely the real culprit: the construct of the last couple of millennia that’s just about ready to give up the ghost.
Endgame: HM Wandsworth Prison
Some time after art school I received an email from A. L., one of the visiting lecturers I had met at Chelsea, who invited me and sculptor Adam Zoltowski to give an artists’ talk to prisoners at HM Wandsworth Prison. Prisoners are genuine victims. Treated by the state like drain effluence. This was the kind of thing I was interested in.
The day for the visit came, I travelled to the prison, and met Adam and A.L. outside the main entrance with its Victorian portcullis, about as outmoded as the portcullis on a one pence coin.
We passed through security and arrived at the workshop room halfway through a slightly nervous presentation by three women from a prize-giving organisation called The Koestler Awards (named after long-time political prisoner Arthur Koestler to encourage art in UK prisons). As well as the women there were twelve men in the room, mostly sitting around a long table with some perching on the workbenches. One of them stood out as perhaps in his mid 50s while the others were young, more or less of art school age. A.L. had told us that they had been incarcerated for a variety of offences mostly ranging from the opportunistic to the violent and I should also say that it was clear that they didn’t come from entitled backgrounds.
The presentation itself was long and well meaning and from my perspective, quite magisterial. It occurred to me that that’s the nature of arts-award talks. If you’re on the panel judging an art competition, then you’re supposed to be more knowledgeable than those who enter. I realised that what was different wasn’t the Koestler presentation itself but the fact that the audience obviously had more life-experience (if not life-years) than the usual converse relationship.
Venetian bridges, New York City skylines
After the presentation, the Koestler reps looked over the attendees’ artwork that they had brought along, flicking through mostly A3 and A2 portfolios, and I took the opportunity to shadow some of the exchanges. The reps pointed-out some of the first artist’s work which they considered worthy of entering for the award – paintings of Venetian bridges copied from photographs. I noticed however, that the artist had also made numerous more personal drawings in pencil – erotic studies of women and loosely drawn dream sequences. No comments were made about this work. The Koestler rep moved on to the next artist’s portfolio and I saw her picking out yet more scenes of Venice, together with copies of New York skyline posters, recommending them for submission to the competition, and again disregarding more personal work. I was struck by the fact that both artists seemed unconcerned or perhaps unsurprised at this ranking of their work with their most civilised, best-copied paintings meriting praise and the more linear and less restrained work – expressions of dreams and desires – being put aside. I found myself mentally joining-the-dots to try and understand something that seemed straight out of My Fair Lady but with the gender roles reversed: the taming of unreconstructed men.
My Fair Lady
Pretty much the entire premise of my dissertation was being played out in front of me and by the time it was my turn to give a presentation my agenda was charged. I had brought in some books and comics that I thought would be appreciated: smutty underground comics from 1960s San Francisco by S. Clay Wilson and Robert Crumb and some Viz comics from the UK. I also brought artist’s monographs; Van Gogh, Matisse, Carroll Dunham and a book on Picasso’s 1960s erotic prints. I handed the books and comics out and opened a discussion around cave painting, whether it was powerful and if it had any connection to Van Gogh and in turn graffiti. I wanted the men to find the connections themselves, which they did. There was general engagement and some laughter as well as some nice tagging anecdotes and recounts of TV documentaries about caves around the world.
Adam then gave his presentation, a talk on his work and the lack of any decent public sculpture, which also went down well. We said our goodbyes with plenty of bonhomie and we three left HM Wandsworth and walked to a nearby café for lunch.
With A.L. and Adam we talked about how the presentations had gone. I said that I felt good, the men had seemed more human and engaged during our talks than at the prospect of jumping through perfunctory hoops vis-à-vis the Koestler Awards. I reflected that everything I had written about seemed warranted. It was a test to see if my ideas could sway the most marginalised of people – those serving time – and I felt the ideas had stood up.
We carried on talking and eating in the café, which, though not particularly plush was still comfortable. I was becoming aware of something that I felt but which seemed too embarrassing and gauche to voice: a mixed feeling but which included exhilaration that we were here enjoying our cappuccinos and congratulating ourselves while the men were still behind bars. As that awareness swang into focus any elation faded and what I felt had been a coup began to seem pretty complacent and hollow.
I had misjudged need, and need is the sobering accompaniment of being idealistic. Though the men at HM Wandsworth had enjoyed the content of my presentation, and perhaps even had a nascent regard for expressive drawing galvanized, none of this in anyway met the peak of their very particular hierarchy of need. Those incarcerated at HM Wandsworth had clearly already made an unmediated, transgressive work of (performance) art, and because of that performance/crime they were now locked-up behind bars. Any recalcitrant spirit or impulse for wild expression on their part was now counter-intuitive to having their good behaviour noted during hearings and so having the length of their custodial sentence reduced. As A.L. later told me in an email ‘they [the prisoners] measure their success [as artists] by their ability to replicate’. In light of this, copying photos of Venice bridges suddenly seemed like good practice for the living in the socialised, non-extreme outside world.
With thanks to Adam Zoltowski